Mysteries of Ashkenazic last names explained


You know that this son-father name-scheme is used until today in Iceland? “Einar Jonasson” means Einar son of Jonas. And girls names and with -dottir (daughter). They do not and never had second names how we know them.


Doesn’t quite explain where mine comes from, but a fascinating read nonetheless.

Occupational names or place names are not an jewish phenomenon. It’s prevalent in most german speaking countries.

BTW lots of words that are claimed (in the linked article) to be of yiddish origin are actually simply of german origin (e.g. Hirsch, springen, Klausner etc.

The women’s name Feygele is mentioned - it sound quite similar to the german word “Vögele” short for “Vögelchen” = “little Bird”. Wrong?

1 Like

The ending sky or ski is not particularly jewish but has a slawic origin and similar to the german “von” (= engl. “of”) - could signal a place name like Tarnowski ( “of/from Tarnow”), often noble property or a patronymic/matronymic name like “Stefansky” (from the family Stefan, son of Stefan). The suffix -ski is most often found in a polish context and -sky more likely in Czechia, Russia or Ukraine.


I was going to mention Iceland, as it is the only place I know if that still does this.

It’s not correct to say that Icelanders “do not and never had second names how we no them”. A significant minority of Icelandic families do indeed use surnames instead of patronymics. Some prominent Icelanders with surnames include former president Kristján Eldjárn and former prime ministers Jóhann Hafstein, Benedikt Sigurðsson Gröndal, and Ólafur Thors.

I’d always been told that in my case, my surname meant shepherd, but I’m not sure that matches. (it used to be -ski, but got changed by my grandfather and his brothers…)

It’s interesting to see how similar Yiddish is to High German (I sometimes find it easier to understand Yiddish than Schwäbisch). Ladino is also very similar to standard Spanish, although there seems to be some Catalan influence in there too and the spelling is different. Quite a few of the Yiddish words in this video are pretty much German with an accent:


When my toddler started counting to ten in Yiddish, my mother-in-law (of German descent) asked me who was teaching her German at school… :smile:


Yes, Feygele means little bird in Yiddish. It’s a Yiddishization of the Hebrew name Tzipporah, which also means bird.

Just had a look at the wiki article:

“Yiddish (ייִדיש yidish or אידיש idish, literally “Jewish”) is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jews, and it is written in the Hebrew alphabet.”

Somalis do a similar thing. For both boys and girls, your first name is your given name, your middle name is your father’s first name and your last name is your paternal grandfather’s first name (father’s middle name.) Most Somali immigrants have continued this practice after moving to the United States, though I have seen some who have given their children the father’s last name.

Heh. Growing up in a Jewish community, you hear that sort of thing alot. I knew one guy who spoke fluent Yiddish and thought that he’d just take German as a cake course in college. The teacher immediately picked him out when she asked them to recite the days of the week. He was fine… until he said “Shabbos” instead of “Samstag”. :smile: Then… he knew things were about to get interesting. Yes, Yiddish is a dialect of German… but it’s only a dialect. It’s more distinctive to the German ear than Valleyspeak or Southern Drawl is to English speakers–and with some significantly semantical differences (most of them rather vulgar).

Beyond that, interesting article! I had no idea that the origin of Jewish surnames was that recent. And then I realize that I’m describing 200+ years ago as “recent.” :smiley:

I’ve got to wonder though, about the more “generic” surnames–the ones that consist solely of the root words for others. I noticed that the example given of the “fancy shmancy” names were all based around the (ahem) root word of Baum–which is my entire surname, no prefixes or suffixes. Given the context of the example in the article, I have to wonder–did my ancestors get a discount? :smiley: Humor aside, though, I know Rosens, Feins, Golds and Blatts, just to name a few. Those of us with just the root words for other surnames are hardly unknown, so I have to wonder what the situation/origin was there.

1 Like

If your surname comes from Poland it may have something to do with agriculture, as „obora” in polish means „barn”. But I’ve never heard about anyone that would actually call himself Oboranowski. More likely your surname would be spelled „Baranowski”, and that would make a bit more sense shepherwise, as „baran” means „a ram” in polish. It would also be more plausible, because „Baranowski” exists in the list of polish surnames. The thing is, the spelling of american surnames of polish descent changed slightly, but they are still traceable. Anyways, I hope that this made things a little but clearer for you.

1 Like

Interesting how many places do maintain the usage of patronymics in some form or another. The arabic version is apparently still in use in Saudi Arabia, for example.

In many cases (I have no idea about your family, of course), that was an artifact of Ellis Island (or other immigration depot) and the laziness/casual cruelty of the officials there. Lots and lots of “complicated” foreign names got simplified on arrival; many of my Jewish friends with monosyllabic last names trace them back to their grandparents’ immigration.

1 Like

as a youth in metro Detroit, I went to school with many jews and went to a jewish summer camp, so I’m well familiar with these words (shikker and alte kacker are new to me, though.) I’m probably the only secular Atlantan to use these expressions; at least, to use them un-affectedly/un-ironically. I use “putz” and “schmuck” a lot. I’m pretty sure it all falls on deaf ears around here, though.

I’ve heard "farkuckde"translated as “shitty,” although in spirit and in usage there’s no difference between that and “fucked-up.” I usually use it to describe being hammered drunk, so either applies. (spelling yiddish words in english is notoriously variable, but I’m told there’s no “right” way anyhow?)

Names were not changed by immigration officials, lazy or otherwise, at Ellis Island or other entry points. Names were only changed by the immigrants themselves, usually after entry. It is a very common myth.


Names may not have been forced on people, but it’s pretty well documented that there were some mishearings/mistranscriptions, especially when nonliterate immigrants passed through. When you can’t ask “how do you spell that” – or when the answer comes back in an alphabet you don’t know – approximation may be the best you can do.